There was minor excitement in Durham – and some consternation amongst the rowing fraternity – when river levels dropped rapidly overnight last week. The river had been very low for some time but was 20 cm lower on Wednesday morning (28 June) due, we learned, to a failure in a sluice gate on the weir just below Prebends Bridge. It does not look very dramatic in the picture above (a temporary – but not wholly effective – repair had been effected a couple of days earlier) but, as the hydrograph below shows, it was enough to alter the levels to a point where rowing becomes difficult. The following two days were wet and miserable and the rain caused levels to increase again (note the steep rise on the evening of 29 June as floodwater washed down from Weardale) before gradually tailing off over the next few days. My photograph was taken in the afternoon of 2 July when levels were back to normal.
“Normal” is, however, a tricky word to apply to any river, so diverse are the alterations to which they are subject. For me, the ponded section of the Wear upstream of the weir is all I have known and the view of the cathedral looming over the Fulling Mill and its weir is the quintessential impression of Durham, immortalised in J.M.W. Turner’s paintings. Without that weir there would be no rowing on the river – an important “ecosystem service” within the city (see “Bring on the dambusters …”) – yet that dip in the hydrograph on Tuesday morning offers us a rare glimpse into what the river would have looked like in summers in the far past. Rowers would be not be very happy were this to pesist but perhaps canoeists would prefer faster-flowing water? Maximising the ecosystem services that a river provides often involves a trade-off between competing needs.
River levels in the River Wear at New Elvet (NZ 272 ) from 27 June to 2 July. The orange line indicates the point at which flooding may occur. From: https://flood-warning-information.service.gov.uk/station/8288425
I saw the opposite situation on the River Tees at Egglestone, just downstream from Barnard Castle. Turner visited this location as part of the same trip that took him to Durham in 1797 and he sketched the view of Egglestone Abbey which he later worked up into a painting and engraving. In his pictures you can see an old paper mill, what appears to be a weir across the Tees and open ground on the steep land in front of the abbey itself. The view today is quite different: the mill is still there, albeit in a dilapidated condition and there is thick woodland on the river banks which completely obscures the view of the abbey. There is also no sign of the weir but the mill race that diverts river water through the mill can still be seen, though water only flows through when the river is high.
I did wonder if this meant that the weir had been completely washed away since the mill had fallen derelict but another possibility is that the weir is artistic license on Turner’s part. He made his sketch in 1797 but there is no obvious weir in the drawing that has survived. The painting on which the engraving is based dates from about twenty years later, and it is possible that the weir was added to the composition, based on memories of other localities that he visited on that trip (including Durham). The presence of a weir also cannot be confirmed from a painting by Thomas Girtin from about the same time but it is possible that he, too, worked up his watercolours some time after his sketching trips and relied on hazy memories. And, as we know that Girton and Turner were acquainted, Turner may have fed off Girton’s interpretation of the scene, compounding the intital error.
Egglestone Abbey near Barnard Castle. Engraved by T. Higham after J.M.W. Turner. 1822. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)
The other possibility is that we are not looking at the same river as Turner or Girtin. The river we look at today is downstream of major reservoirs at Cow Green and on two tributaries, the Greta and Balder, none of which were present when they visited. Cow Green, in particular, was designed with regulation of the water supply in mind, in order to ensure that there was enough for the industries in Teesside. One consequence is that there is more water in the Tees during the summer now than when Turner and Girtin visited. Maybe a weir would have been necessary at that time to keep the water level high enough to feed the mill race during the summer?
So here, as in the Wear, “normal” is a difficult word to apply. First impressions are that the river is now in a more natural state than two hundred years ago because an impediment to natural flow has been removed. When we look more closely, however, we see that the river we see today is, in fact, a different type of “abnormal” to that which Turner and Girton sketched. But we also need to remember that Turner and Girton’s interpretations are not entirely trustworthy guides to the past either. There is much to be said for walking backwards into the future but occasionally this may mean that we trip ourselves up …
The view across the River Tees towards Abbey Mill and Egglestone Abbey from approximately the same place as Turner’s view. The mill is just visible amongst the trees in the middle of the picture.
David Hill (1996). Turner and the North. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.